In Conversation With Dotan
While many people work their entire lives to become professional musicians, Dutch singer-songwriter Dotan's career started a short five years ago. That's not to say he hasn't been passionate about music since he was a little kid or that he just fell into the world of recording and releasing records -- he just never had the desire to be a big, famous rock star.
And on top of that, he was terrified of the stage.
Dotan made his musical debut in the states at this year's edition of SXSW, and we had the privilege of chatting with him one morning at the beautiful Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin. During our conversation, Dotan explained how he overcame his fear of playing in front of crowds, what the recording process was like for his new album 7 Layers, and how his parents reacted when he quit his full-time job to pursue his passion: music.
This marks your first time at SXSW, but is it your first time to the states?
No, not as a visitor. But these are my first shows in the U.S. It’s been good. I arrived on Wednesday and then played two shows; on Tuesday, I had to play an awards show in Holland, so it was kind of hectic. It’s just crazy, it’s back to square one, sort of grabbing your guitar and running around. I think the vibe is really good. The gigs have been really busy, and it’s the whole band, so it’s me plus five. I could’ve done an acoustic show, but I figured it’d be better to showcase the whole sound, what the album sounds like, to make a true debut.
If the purpose is to get "discovered," do you feel like SXSW is worth the trip from Amsterdam?
I didn’t necessarily come here to get discovered or something. It's a very good way [for fans] to just come out and see what I do, though. People who might know my stuff or who don’t even know me, it’s a good way to reach out to people. The coolest thing is you get to meet a lot of musicians as well. Normally at a festival in Europe, it’s always hectic and you can’t really talk to any of the other musicians. Here, you hang around and get the chance to check out stuff. It’s really cool. You get to see bands that have been around for awhile and see bands that are brand new. It’s such a cool mix.
The background of your new album, 7 Layers, is unique, to say the least. Walk me through how it came to fruition.
Yeah, it’s very atypical. Basically, I’ve been doing music full-time for five years. At first, I had this thing where I was just terrified to go on stage. It was always not very pleasant. [Laughs] I kind of expected it to get less and less but it just became worse, so I decided I needed to do something about it. I decided to do the scariest thing I could imagine. I thought about playing in front of a small group of people at someone’s house, so I decided to do these living room shows. I posted this random message on Facebook and just asked people if they wanted to host a house concert with me. A lot of responses came in and I started doing those. The first couple of times were so scary.
I can't even imagine. That's a completely different experience than playing a club.
Yeah, it was scary. You have no stage. You have no lights. You have no band. It’s just you and your guitar and you have to fill the whole night.
Even for someone who isn't scare of the stage, this seems like it would be terrifying.
For me, I wanted to die the first couple of times. But then I just started to get the hang of it. I started to understand the whole concept of sharing music with people. I’ve done like over 100 of those. So then I was making the record and this was a really good way for me to test new music. I’d test them on an audience -- a very small audience. But I wanted to also keep that sound, that living room sound. I had a very clear vision of how I wanted the record to sound, so I just built this studio in my house.
Oh wow. You built your own studio?
Well, it sounds really interesting but I just placed a couple of mics in the room and tried to isolate the room. [Laughs] I live on probably the busiest street in Amsterdam, so it wasn’t an easy job, so it was mostly at night that I’d record. I just started experimenting and experimenting and decided to do it myself. Me and my buddy Marc, who is in my band, decided to do this. At first we just tried to record acoustic guitars and vocals in one take -- everything is live -- and then build stuff around it.
At that point, we didn’t have a proper drummer, so we just started experimenting with floor toms and different rhythms. Something really interesting happened and we were able to create this sound, and then I’d sing all these choruses over and over and over. When I recorded a bunch of choruses, I went to play one, but instead of selecting just one chorus I selected all of them by mistake -- and I thought that sound was really cool. That's when that sound was kind of born, and from there, we just keep doing it ourselves. It's very low key. These days I think there are so many overproduced records and everything is so clean and almost robotic.
Music can definitely get to a point where it's too perfect and it sounds inauthentic.
I want to hear squeaks on the guitar. I want to hear the guitar isn’t perfectly tuned. If you listen to Neil Young or the Beatles, so many things are wrong if you look at it in a theoretical way, but that’s what makes it feel alive.
How long was it from the moment you posted that message on Facebook to wrapping up 7 Layers?
I think it was about a year and a half.
In that short amount of time, I have to imagine you experienced all sorts of anxiety, from playing in living rooms to recording an album yourself. You were kind of handling everything on your own.
I had to ask myself if I should be doing this or not, and I decided if I am going to do this, I need to open myself up in every aspect. Performing, producing the album, lyrically. You know, the songs are really personal and really honest, and that’s why I wanted it to sound like I was playing right in front of you. It’s not like a producer made it sound radio-worthy or something, you know?
Did you ever think you couldn't do it?
Yeah. Yeah, but I just found this sound and I truly believed in the songs. That helped me.
When you listen to the album, your genuineness shines. It's easy to hear.
I hope so. I wrote like 50 songs for this record. People ask me what my favorite song is on the record, but I truly have a deep connection to every single one. I’m very happy with it. It was hard to cut some of the songs, but they’re never gone. I still play some of them live and we can figure out how to use them later. The theme of the entire record is very, you know, focused on one thing; that nostalgic feeling, that home thing, but that was never on purpose. I just wrote songs ... and then it all made sense.
You've only been playing music for five years. What led up to that decision to become a professional musician?
I’ve always had this dream to be honest. I grew up in Amsterdam and I was always very much in love with music. I was the weird guy in school who would listen to Neil Young and Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. Everyone else would listen to house music and Top 40, so I was a bit of an outcast. But I don’t really come from a musical background, you know, my parents aren't musical and my friends weren’t in bands. I never got in touch with it.
Your connection was purely ...
As a listener and a fan -- but I was writing lyrics. The people around me expected me to do other things, though. I was good at school so they wanted me to go to university and do that, so I did that. I had this full-time job at this events company and everyone was so proud of me and thought I was doing such an amazing job. I just wasn’t happy at all. One day I was sick of it and dropped everything and moved back with my parents and gave up that life and lifestyle. I remember, I bought a cheap guitar and this MIDI keyboard and just started playing.
And you had never played before?
Right, and I didn’t even want to learn songs. I just wanted to write. I grabbed the guitar and just started writing. That’s what I wanted to do, I didn’t want to be a great musician in that sense that I could play every single song in the world. I just wanted to find something that suits me. I didn’t even sing before this, so I had to find my voice. But that came from writing these songs, because someone had to sing them and I guess that was me.
Your connection with music -- from listener to musician -- seems to be the foundation of your journey. It's fascinating.
I guess! Now I play piano, I play guitar, I play drums. I’ve never been to music school, but I just kind of like that I don’t really know what I’m doing. I just do what I feel.
Maybe that lack of "real" training is why your music is so honest.
Yeah. I don’t necessarily think about perfect chord progressions or a specific way of writing. I just do whatever I feel. Sometimes it’s very simple, sometimes it’s very complex. When it’s me, I hear it. I know it when I like it.
When you moved back with your parents, were they supportive of your decision?
Well at first, they weren’t, which I guess is normal. I had a job, I had a car, I had everything. On the outside I was very successful, but that wasn’t for me. My dad wanted me to have my security ... and now he saw me lying under a bridge in 10 years and being that weird singer-songwriter dude who never made it. At first it was rough, I played so many bars and open mics. I wanted to do it the old fashioned way, just growing an audience.
And now that you seem to have that security, what's on the horizon for you?
We’re going to do two shows in April here in the states, one in L.A. and one in New York. This summer is going to be packed with European festivals, and I’m just finishing up my European tour. That’s been a really cool experience, it was my first real European touring. Later this year, in the fall, I want to come back to the U.S. and do more shows.
Are you thinking about the follow-up to 7 Layers?
Yeah, I’m just writing and I’m playing a lot of new songs at our shows. I don’t have any specific ideas, though. I just want to play for now. I want a lot of people to hear this record still. I’ll probably go back in the studio this summer.
Back in the studio meaning ...
Yeah, back in my house. [Laughs] It sounds really cool but it’s really not. But I’m going to keep doing it, and I might explore writing with other people. For now, though, I just want to keep it really personal and, well, like this. I’ve found this sound that I’m really happy with.
Dotan's 7 Layers is out now via Universal Music. You can get details on the record here. And make sure to keep an eye on Dotan's official website for his full tour itinerary, including his recently announced gig at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam.